NY Times – Does the brain like e-books?

images.jpegThat’s the title of an article that appeared yesterday. The article consists of a series of essays by:

Alan Liu, English professor

Sandra Aamodt, author, “Welcome to Your Brain”

Maryanne Wolf, professor of child development

David Gelernter, computer scientist

Gloria Mack, professor of informatics

Pop over and take a look.

Thanks to ShelfAwareness for the heads up.

10 Comments on NY Times – Does the brain like e-books?

  1. Very interesting subject.
    Some nice insights.
    Except they seem to equate web sites and online reading with ebooks.
    Until somebody does a more fine-grained analysis this is a question without (meaningful) answer.
    Nice to see some thought is being given; it suggests ebooks are finally *starting* to be taken seriously in academia.

  2. Other than the obvious Luddite commentary by Gelernter, most of the commenters agree that there is simply not enough information to go by yet, to make a conclusion. Many of them commented on the “distractions” posed by elements sharing a computer screen with text, without being able to quantify them, or compare them to the “distractions” outside of a piece of paper, namely, the world around you.

    Electronic reading is still evolving, which makes effective study of the phenomenon difficult at this stage. But as time goes by, trial and error answers some early questions, and negates others, we should eventually be able to assemble some useful information.

  3. In an upcoming issue of Technology Review, from MIT, the following very brief oped letter appears in the Nov-Dec issue: titled [The Way We Read Now]

    One reader — Danny Bloom in Taiwan — was intrigued by the potential of a new pressure-sensitive touch screen (\”A Touch of Ingenuity,\” September/October 2009) that could be used in a wide variety of applications, including e-reader screens. He wrote in:

    I wonder if in the future we might need a new word to differentiate the kind of reading we do on computer or e-reader screens from the kind of reading we do on paper surfaces. I have heard a few new terms being bandied about on the Internet: screen-reading, browsing, skimming, scanning, even \”diging.\” Reading is reading, of course. But we might not be \”reading\” the new-and-improved newspapers and magazines of the future. We might be \”screening\” them.

    I am so glad to see this discussion taking place here, and I hope the story breaks into the print edition later, too. The points of view above are very good to read and study, and there are more people to interview and talk to: Edward Tenner, Christian Vandenthorpe, Thad McIlroy, Anne Mangen in Norway, William Powers (who wrote the essay Hamlet’s BlackBerry, soon to be a book in mid 2010), Bill Hill former Microsoft design and readability guru, Paul Saffo the futurist, Kevin Kelly who is writing a book called Technium now, Sharon Shaloo at the Center for the book in Boston, Jakob Nielsen, Don Norman, James Fallows, Erick Schonfeld, Kara Swisher and many more. Oy yes, and don’t forget Mr. Bloom with his blog that has been focusing on these issues for the past six months at :
    http://zippy1300.blogspot.com

    You asked: Is there a difference in the way the brain takes in or absorbs information when it is presented electronically versus on paper? ANSWER: Yes there is. MRI scans will show this as science soon.

    You asked: Does the reading experience change, from retention to comprehension, depending on the medium? ANSWER: Yes it does.

    Conclusion: in fact, reading on paper is so different from reading on screens, on the networked screen and on Kindles, that it is quote possible that we will need a new word or term for this new kind of reading sxperience. Maybe not. But I feel a new word is needed in order to help us study these issues.

    My suggestion: screening, for reading on screens. Others have suggtested screading, scanning, skimming, browising, grazing, and one New York Times reporter told me in a private email that he likes the word diging for digital reading. Marvin Minsky at MIT has some good things to say about these issues too. Ask him for his POV one day, too, as a followup to this very good post. Bravo!

  4. I’m not sure we need a new name for “reading”… whatever the media, it’s still reading… but the point is taken: Reading on screens and reading on paper are different.

    But instead of simply acknowledging that, we need to get some concrete data: Why does the brain process the data differently? Why is retention and comprehension different? If we know why it’s different, can we improve on it?

    Until we can do that, we’re simply standing around and saying a frog is not a toad.

  5. Ellen Jakesenner // October 16, 2009 at 2:05 am //

    Steve Jordan, above, you make a good point re “I’m not sure we need a
    new name for “reading”… whatever the media, it’s still reading… but
    the point is taken: Reading on screens and reading on paper are
    different.”

    Steve, I am convinced we need and could benefit from a new word for
    reading on screens, whatever the word will be, it might be screening
    or screading or some new word or term we cannot even imagine yet, just
    as before Google, who know “to google” would become a popular verb, so
    I am convinced and i have a strong gut hunch that a new word is coming
    down the info highway SOON. But i don’t know what the word will be.
    This is now my life’s work, Steve, egging this new word, whatever it
    will be, on. WHY?

    Because, again, my hunch, a new word will allow scholars and
    scientists to study this new kind of “reading” on screens to see via
    MRI scans just exactly how different it is from paper reading. I am
    sure MRi scans will show that diff parts of the brain light up when
    paper reading compared to screen reading, that is my major hunch here.
    that is why we need a new word: to help study the phenom. Agree?
    Disagree? what word might you suggest, Steve?

    And don’t brush me off and dismiss me, Steve. I am one determined foot
    soldier in the service of Mr Paper. I hate screening. I do it because
    I need to. But I much prefer paper culture. The reason i say don’t
    brush me off, Steve, is I AM THE GUY who set up this Room for Debate
    post on the Times site. Me! I spent six months emailing everyone at
    the times and they all said GET LOST. Finally the RFD team saw my last
    email and said okay. See?

    So i am going to work hard to find a way to see how a new word can be
    created for reading on screens. the Times is right now considering my
    idea and to do a print story on DO WE NEED A NEW WORD FOR READING ON
    SCREENS? with interview NOT WITH ME, a nobody, invisible Danny Bloom
    in Taiwan, but with PHD experts around the USA. Watch.

  6. Danny/Ellen, I didn’t want to give the impression that I was “dismissing” you. As I said, more research needs to be done to better understand how people process and comprehend information read on a screen.

    A combination of factors are at work here: One, the physical attributes of an electronic medium (in various forms, and used in various locations, positions and postures), and how the human visual system handles the differences between that and more traditional paper delivery; and psychological issues related to the perception of the new electronic medium itself, how it is used, how trusted is it as a source of information, how useful is the more immediate feedback it offers, etc.

    Most of these things have, in fact, been studied in relation to television, especially for news and commercial development and augmentation, and scientists have been at that for over 50 years. But in comparison, the subtle and major differences of the web have hardly been cracked.

    In time, we will discover there are optimum ways of designing and laying out electronic media to optimize the intended experience.

    How much is a new word needed? That, I’m not so sure about. Consider: We read newspapers, and paperback books, and billboards, and road signs, and posters, most every day. All of those items give us text to read in very different formats, including different physical media… handheld paper, wall-mounted paper up-close and far away, electric signs, moving signs, etc. Yet with all of these similar but different reading processes, we still call all of them “reading”… reading signs, reading billboards, reading paper, etc.

    We are talking about “reading screens.” It’s a different media, and the presentation of information is unique compared to most, but it is very similar to newspaper and magazine presentation, many competing inputs vying for your attention at once, albeit with the additional distractions of sound and animation possible.

    And the physical differences of using a screen to read, as opposed to paper, aren’t as “extreme” as many people would lead us to believe. As children, most of us adults were trained to turn the pages of books… a physical process that, once learned, was quickly relegated to an automatic action that did not distract from our concentration. And just as we were taught, our children are now learning to press a button to change a screen or scroll to new content… an action, like page-turning, that will soon become instinctive to them, and not distract from the process.

    Just as we don’t need unique words to describe reading a paperback book, reading a hardback book, reading a newspaper, reading a subway poster, or reading a road sign… all of which require subtle or significant physical actions in addition to actual “reading”… I see us continuing to refer to reading on screens as “reading on screens.”

    After all, when you “Google” something, what do you do next? You read the results.

    Of course, I could be wrong.

  7. Reading is reading; decoding graphics symbol streams into information. But we’re already stretching the definition with stuff like comics, hypertext, simultaneous TTS…
    Information presentation is evolving and “classic reading” is going to be only a small part of the resulting environment. Especially in the educational arena.
    We’re going to need a glossary soon, just to describe all the mutations of “text on a screen” headed our way.
    Whether we need one or more new words for the activity is uncertain; after all, we still call it reading when it comes to braille tactile presentation, no? But that is still focused and linear.
    Is it still reading if its non-linear and relies on other senses? We don’t “read” audio books thoughthey are linear yet we currently “read” hypertext and multimedia.
    I think we’re going to need a common glossary soon, just to describe all the mutations of “text on a screen” headed our way and before we can decide what reading is in a digital information civilization.

    Let’s see how the conversation plays out…

  8. We’re going to need a glossary soon, just to describe all the mutations of “text on a screen” headed our way.

    …which is by far of the most significance here. Different screens impact the nervous system differently, depending on eInk, LCD, OLED, CRT, etc. Is there a significant difference between these and paper? How much do the different technologies create different physical experiences? How does size impact the reading experience (smaller, finer eye movement vs larger movements)? Are these elements largely overweighed by the composition and arrangement of content on the screen? And how does all of this impact retention (if at all)?

    These questions alone could easily keep scientists and researchers busy for most of this century…

  9. Hi Steve and Felix,
    thanks for the good replies and feedback above. I agree with much of what you say. Time will tell. Here are some replies I got offline from experts in the field who were involved with the NYTimes Room for Debate post (which I asked to be set up two weeks, and they accepted my advice apparently, after rejecting my proposal for six months….):

    David Gelertner said:

    Dear Danny:
    We use “read” for scrolls & books & billboards, & Time Square displays & T-shirts & lots of other things. I think the language question has already been decided…. DG

    A book reviewer from UK told me:

    Danny,

    Thank you thinking of me for writing a story on Kindles, etc. Maybe one day, but not now, because I haven’t bought one yet (I am thinking of getting the Sony). Quite honestly, too, I don’t find the “new word needed” issue for reading on screens very pressing. It’s your bee in your bonnet so I think it should be you who writes the piece.

    BTW, I saw the 2007 movie ZODIAC for the first time yesterday. Pretty impressive filming and acting technique, I thought. Maybe you’re like the guy there, Robert Graysmith, who simply wouldn’t let go of a topic despite years of media indifference.”

    Jameela Lares said:
    “Danny, I’m wondering why you feel it is necessary to have a word before there’s a real sense of its referent. Terminology is usually the last to arrive, and outright coinages are particularly difficult to sell–hence “snigglets” that never catch on. Better to get the discussion going that try to name it betimes. The owl of Minerva takes flight at dusk.”

    And Richard Curtis, a top literary agent in NYC, told me in a recent email today:

    “Hi, Danny, Thanks for that comment about my post on the NY Times blog on Ebooks. I love the idea of this new word of “screading” and will run a brief item on my blog. Is there somewhere I can confirm that you set up Room for Debate? I’d like to give you credit.”

    Christian Vandendorpe, PHD, told me:
    “Dear Danny,
    Thank you very much for your article of a new word for redaing on screens, whatever that word might be. You make a good argument for your proposal, and I agree that reading on screens is taking our civilization in a new direction. I note however that you ignore completely the e-paper, which is quite different from the computer screen. As I could experiment it myself, reading a novel on e-paper is not very different of reading it in a print edition.

    Nevertheless, for the new generation, e-paper could arrive too late to compete with the new mode of reading — or screening — imposed by the computer screen. I share Maryanne Wolf’s concern: “For my greatest concern is that the young brain will never have the time (in milliseconds or in hours or in years) to learn to go deeper into the text after the first decoding, but rather will be pulled by the medium to ever more distracting information, sidebars, and now,perhaps, videos (in the new vooks).”

  10. “Nevertheless, for the new generation, e-paper could arrive too late to compete with the new mode of reading — or screening — imposed by the computer screen….”

    This quote from the Times blog or someone’s comment made me think of a new term, maybe useful, maybe not:

    “SCREEN-IMPOSED READING”, to mean reading on a screen

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